Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Haazinu, Shabbat Teshuva

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Haazinu, Shabbat Teshuva 5760/1999

"Lo Se`arum Avoteikhem" (Deut. 32:17)

"Whom your fathers did not know"

Dr. Joseph Drori

The Martin (Szusz) Dept. of Land of Israel Studies

In Haazinu, Israel is accused of angering the G-d who made them by committing abominations, sacrificing to "demons, no-gods," who are characterized as gods that lo se`arum avoteikhem--rendered in the New JPS Translation as "who stirred not your father's fears" or perhaps as "whom your fathers did not know." The verb s`ar --with a sin and in the kal conjugation--is unique in the Bible.

Several interpretations have been offered for this verse. One, dating back to Sifre and to the Aramaic translations of the Torah, relates s`ar to "fear," "terror." Sifre, which is cited by Rashi, explains lo se`arum as meaning they did not fear them, were not in awe of them. Other commentators, early as well as late, sought to enrich this interpretation with various linguistic examples.

A second related interpretation views se`arum as connected to se`arah (with samekh), meaning tempest, excitation, tremor. Because of the resemblance between se`arum and sa`ir, meaning goat, but also satyr-- see Lev. 17:7-- other commentators sought to read this text as if it said: your fathers did not relate to them--the no-gods or demons-- as se`irim, or satyrs, i.e., they did not "idolize" them as menacing, intimidating demons to whom supplication must be made.

Of all these readings, the most accepted is the first suggestion. Even translations accepted definitions along the line of fearing, being in awe of, etc. Thus Yehoash, the Yiddish translator, rendered it as "haben sich far sei nit gefarcht, and German translations read nicht gescheut or nicht erschauert; Zunz has it as nicht gegrauet. In English it was rendered as "not dreaded" or "not feared."

Tur Sinai could not easily accept the traditional suggestions and offered an emendation of his own (actually, he suggested adopting an ancient emendation):

The verb se`arum, which occurs nowhere else in the Bible and which early and late commentators alike have had difficulty understanding, did not exist in the original version of the song. The fact that not a single one of the Rabbis were familiar with such a verb is indicated, in my opinion, by the derasha in Sifre on Deuteronomy: "Do not read the text as lo se`arum but as lo sha`um," as in "but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed [lo sha`ah]" (Gen. 4:5). This derash approach is also found in Targum Onkelos and Targum Jonathan, who render the text as lo it`asku behon, or "had nothing to do with them" (Peshuto shel Mikra, vol. 1, p. 226), which assumes the Sifre's reading.

Da`at Zekenim mi-ba`alei ha-Tosafot made another suggestion: se`arum as meaning pekadum--remember, attend to--according to the Aramaic translation of Biblical poked as "mis`ar". Yet another approach explains se`arum as meaning sensed, paid attention to, or noticed. Saadiah Gaon rendered lo se`arum as follows: "The finer among your ancestors did not pay attention to them." In Neveh Shalom, a commentary on Saadiah Gaon's translation, R. Amram Korah noted: "They did not turn to them, and the finer of your ancestors did not sense them." Likewise Jonah ibn Janah, medieval grammarian and author of Sefer ha-Shorashim, translated this phrase as: "They did not pay attention to them, and they did not think about them." This interpretation was accepted by the author of Aderet Eliyahu, who added: "They not only did not make them, rather the thought of doing such a thing never even occurred to them." Perhaps this interpretation was prompted by the similarity he perceived between sa`ar with the letter sin and the Mishnaic verb sha`ar, with a shin-- current in modern Hebrew and meaning to estimate, to imagine [le-sha'er].

To resolve the question conclusively and to elucidate the sense of our verse we suggest turning to Arabic, whose major role in clearing up linguistic difficulties in the Bible has already been noted by medieval scholars.

We preface our remarks with the rule that Hebrew words written with a shin (pointed on the right) which have an Arabic cognate are written in Arabic with a sin, and vice-versa, Hebrew words written with a sin (pointed on the left and pronounced s), when they appear in Arabic are spelled and pronounced with a shin.

An abundance of verbs and nouns can be cited to illustrate this rule. For convenience sake, let us take the well-known Shir ha-Kavod (An'im Zemirot) from which we have: nafshi [Arabic: nafs], shimkha [Arabic: ism], va-yeshavukha [Arabic: siva], roshkha [Arabic: ra's], ke-ish milhamot [Arabic: insan], shem kodsho [Arabic: kuds], lilvusho [Arabic: libas]; and conversely, the Hebrew words with a sin (pointed on the left): u-se`ar roshkha [Arabic: sha`ar], be-seva ve-shaharut [Arabic: shib], and resisei lailah [Arabic: rash, meaning to spray or sprinkle].

Likewise, for the word se`arum, pointed on the left, one should seek an Arabic cognate pointed on the right. Indeed, such a word does exist. The Arabic verb sha`ra means "to know," the noun ish`ar means a public announcement or publication, and the archaic combination laita shi`iri from classical Arabic means "I wish I knew." Sha`ar, known in the sense of "poet," actually means the one who is familiar with and knows by heart the texts and verses which are the heritage and pride of the clan.

Indeed Gesenius, who knew may Semitic languages and made extensive use of them in interpreting biblical words, listed this cognate in his Lexicon (dating to the early 19th century).

Apparently the word se`arum which occurs in this week's reading preserves an expression which was familiar and understood by ancient Hebrew speakers but later passed out of use, inviting a variety of interpretations ranging from hairs standing on end to mountain-goats dancing.

Clearly the accusation made by the author of the song against Israel was not that their ancestors, while they knew the demons, did not fear them and ignored their power to do harm, in the spirit of the words of Sifre--"Even though they sacrificed to them, they were not in awe of them"--rather, that the demons were new (hadashim miqqarov ba'u) and unfamiliar. Early generations did not know them at all (lo se`arum), and only the present generation, crooked and perverse (dor iqqesh u-ftaltol), having been influenced by the alien culture with which they had come into contact, adopted abominations and alien rites and forgot the G-d who brought them forth.

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